Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Strategies for Not Overeating in Social Situations

Carbohydrates can help turn off appetite completely.

I am nosy, perhaps because of a New England childhood in which neighbors peered at what was going on outside from behind their curtains. My nosiness is limited, however, to what people eat in restaurants, and I limit my curiosity to people seated around me. (Although I admit that I peer at what people eating at sidewalk restaurants are consuming when I walk by.) Recently my interest has focused less on what people are eating and more on how some are stopping themselves from eating too much.

I have noticed many young women sitting on their hands with a half full plate of food in front of them. Occasionally the hands would emerge from the chair and wave about, to amplify whatever point the speaker was making, but then resume their position back on the chair again. The hands sitters were all thin. Maybe they are onto something, I thought, and decided to try out their technique.

A few days ago I was having dinner with a friend who is a very slow eater. Although I am not a fast eater, it was obvious that it would be a long time before she finished her meal. It is very hard not to continue to eat, even if you are full, when someone sitting across from you is still eating. Even though I had eaten enough, I knew that if my hands were on the table, pretty soon one of them would be holding my fork and using it to consume the uneaten portion of food on my plate. I decided to sit on my hands and it worked. Every once in a while I would get bored watching my friend eat and start to move my hand back to my plate. I emphasize that I was absolutely full, but my eating was to break the tedium. As my hand crept towards the fork, I yanked it back to the chair and kept it there. Eventually my friend finished, the server removed the plates, and I had avoided ingesting a few hundred calories that I really didn't want to eat.

Yesterday I noticed two more techniques to avoiding overeating, and in this case it was dessert. I was at a catered dinner, and as dessert was being served several people waved at the server to motion that they didn't want any. How clever, I thought. There's no need to use will power to avoid eating dessert if it is not served. Others got up from their tables and moved around to chat with people who were not at their table. They too were not confronting a dessert that they were trying to avoid eating.

One may ask, "Why avoid dessert"? In these days of overly large portions and dinners preceeded by lavish appetizers, a dessert represents extra calories that few of us can afford to consume unless we are trying to gain weight and/or spend many hours doing physical activity.

Alas, effective strategies that decrease overeating at home are more difficult to find. Unless one lives in a Masterpiece Theatre-type house with a kitchen in the basement populated only by servants, food in the kitchen is always available. No cook is in your kitchen to chase you away from the leftovers, so after dinner you will be putting them away, and trying not to eat them. The temptation to snack on the needless calories can be strong.

Of course there are many ways of preventing yourself from having your hands go to your mouth with unneeded food. I have always been squeamish about using my hands to put food in my mouth when wearing rubber gloves. Perhaps that is because I only wear them when using some toxic cleaning material. But somehow eating a cookie from a rubber-gloved hand is so unappealing that wearing them while cleaning up the kitchen might decrease your temptation to snack.

Brushing a furry pet is also effective obstacle to snacking, (unless you like fur-covered potato chips) as are getting your hands dirty from gardening, or changing diapers. Of course the snacks will still be there once your hands are clean again.

Like the long list of suggestions compiled over the years by diet counselors to stop overeating, these are not l00% effective. The only truly effective way of stopping oneself from snacking or mindlessly nibbling on the leftovers is to simply not want to eat. We have all experienced the feeling of not wanting to drink water when something in our body tells us to stop. If we need to continue to drink for a medical test or because we may become dehydrated during an athletic activity, the process becomes aversive.

Someday a weight-loss drug may be developed that does the same thing for food intake. The drug will make us incapable of eating more than a certain amount of food, no matter how attractive or tempting the food may be.

Meanwhile, until such a drug is discovered, there is a natural alternative: carbohydrates. Carbohydrates, when eaten in the correct amount, with little or no fat or protein, can turn off appetite completely. Carbohydrates do this by generating the production of serotonin in the brain. Serotonin produces satiety, i.e. the feeling that is the opposite of hunger. Satiety makes us stop drinking water when we have had enough and satiety makes us lose interest in eating when we have consumed enough.

A pre-meal "appetizer" of carbohydrate, eaten about 30 to 45 minutes before the main course, does two things. First, it makes you feel full before you have finished eating so it is not necessary to sit on your hands. It also makes you lose interest in snacking an hour after the meal is finished. It may be hard to believe, but when the serotonin-satiety system is fully activated, interest in eating vanishes.

To be sure, unlike a drug, the carbohydrate has calories. But relatively little has to be eaten—about 30 grams or 120 calories to produce new serotonin. And the ability to eat less at meals and lose interest in between meal nibbling can produce significant weight loss. And you can get back the use of your hands.